Exhibition: Ireland’s first female botanist

The life and work of Ellen Hutchins, the trailblazing young woman credited with being ‘Ireland’s first female botanist,’ is currently being celebrated at a special exhibition at Trinity College Dublin. 

The setting of the exhibition in Trinity is an appropriate one as Ellen corresponded with James Townsend Mackay, curator of Trinity’s Botanic Garden, to classify many of her finds. The exhibition will be located in the Old Anatomy Building, displaying Ellen’s material from the Herbarium of Trinity’s Botany department and the Ellen Hutchins Festival in Bantry.

Letter (crosshatched) with specimens from Ellen Hutchins to James Townsend Mackay Feb 15 1807-Image Courtesy of The Herbarium

Ellen (1785 – 1815), from Ballylickey, near the head of Bantry Bay in Co. Cork, had a fascination for the natural world and an exceptional aptitude for drawing and classifying plant species – from seaweeds to mosses, and from lichens to flowering plants.

Many species and the plant genus Hutchinsia (Brassicaceae) were named in her honour. A selection of her meticulously prepared specimens and detailed watercolour drawings will be on show at the exhibition.

Seaweed specimen collected by Ellen Hutchins in Bantry Bay Fucus Capilliaris - Image Courtesy of The Herbarium. Botany Dept. Trinity College Dublin.

Ellen drew admiration from the leading botanists of the day, and her work was featured in many of the leading publications; although she never published herself, she was a major contributor to the new and developing plant sciences of her era. At first refusing to have her name associated with her finds, she soon relented, and her name appears on her specimens now in the most significant collections in Ireland, the UK and the USA.

All of this of course came at a time when women had no access to a University education. Through her correspondence with others – some of it on display at the exhibition – Ellen’s tale is one of a determined young woman who was highly respected within her field on an international scale.

Watercolour drawing by Ellen Hutchins August 1810. Litosiphon pusillus (current name Litosiphon laminariae)- Image courtesy of Museums Sheffield

Ellen’s drawings are permanently housed in the library and archive at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and Museums Sheffield and shown with their kind permission. Her specimens are mostly in the herbarium at the Natural History Museum in London, with others in Trinity, the Linnean Society, London and the New York Botanical Garden. Her letters are in Trinity College Dublin, Trinity College, Cambridge, and in Kew Botanic Gardens’ library and archives.

To read about the opening of the exhibition, see here.

Media Contact:

Thomas Deane, Press Officer for the Faculty of Engineering, Mathematics and Science | deaneth@tcd.ie | +353 1 896 4685